Schindler's List (1993) is one of director Steven Spielberg's many critical and commercial achievments, combining his strong filmmaking abilities with his trademark use of heart and emotion as the film's driving force. Certainly you'd expect such care and delicacy when dealing with a subject such as the Holocaust, one of the human race's darkest events. Essentially, this is a chronicle of Oskar Schindler, a rich German businessman who used his considerable power to save approximately 1,100 Jews from certain death in Nazi concentration camps by employing them as factory workers. Some would call him a genuine humanitarian, and others may simply regard him as an opportunist who only saved the Jews in the interest of gaining cheap manual labor.
First of all, it's no secret that Schindler's List is widely regarded as Spielberg's masterpiece. This is a beautifully-concieved work of art in the technical sense, and does an excellent job of bringing these events to life. This is one of the most highly-regarded films of all time, and it's easy to see that Schindler's List is worthy of praise.
A somber tale of struggle, redemption, and human perseverance, it's hard not to be genuinely moved by the events depicted onscreen. The harsh conditions and horrible treatment of the Jews is something that will never be forgotten, and will hopefully serve as a warning for future generations. Schindler's List is both a sprawling tale of horror and a moving tale of compassion, the likes of which are rarely seen on the big screen. However, for all of its strengths, there are a number of things that I can't help but dislike about this film. In all fairness, these complaints are in no way meant in disrespect to the events themselves, but come from a purely subjective standpoint.
Like many others, I first saw this film around the time of its release in 1993, and was sincerely moved. However, the film was so emotionally impacting, I hadn't seen it since. Over 10 years have passed since then, so it's much easier to look at this film through an objective eye. Having seen such stirring accounts of the Holocaust as Alan Resnais' Night and Fog, as well as the epic 9 1/2 hour documentary Shoah, the bar was set very high indeed. While I honestly believe that Schindler's List is a very successful effort and a cinematic triumph, it's no match for the previously-mentioned films.
In short, the main concern I have with Schindler's List is the somewhat cautious and distancing approach to the Jewish characters themselves. While one could argue that this portrayal is in direct relation to the actual treatment of the Jews, they are portayed as little more than a target with no face. When this is combined with Spielberg's unwavering sense of human triumph and perseverance, the result is a somewhat disjointed story. Additionally, the cynic in me can't help but resent the weight of the events as a subtle attempt to produce a 'critic-proof' film: after all, what kind of monster would dare speak ill of anything related to the Holocaust?
Although these complaints are few, they're large enough issues to keep Schindler's List, in my humble opinion, from being what it is so widely regarded as: a masterpiece. Even so, this film is such a technical marvel that it's impossible not to appreciate it from a cinematic standpoint. The performaces are universally excellent, most notably by Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler himself. Also of note are Ralph Fiennes and the incomparable Ben Kingsley, who are but three examples of an absolutely stellar cast of characters. When this is combined with beautiful cinematography and an equally striking score, it's obvious that Schindler's List really is a special film.
There aren't many out there that haven't witnessed this film for themselves. Since 1993, Schindler's List has been universally praised by audiences and critics alike, and was strangely absent from DVD until now. Presented by Universal, the film is given an excellent techincal treatment and a polished production, although the bonus features are a little thin. Regardless of the film's minor shortcomings or the lack of extras, Universal's DVD release of Schindler's List is a wonderful way to experience this film, and one of the better offferings on DVD this year. While it's not a perfect release, there are a number of highlights worth mentioning. Let's get started:
Quality Control Department
The stunning cinematography is well-preserved for this DVD release, and has never looked better! Schindler's List is dominated by rich, black-and-white photography that will stay with you long after the film's end (as evidenced by the large number of screen captures!). The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is very clean, and displays excellent contrast and a high level of image detail. Grain is kept to a minimum, and the occasional uses of color also exhibit good clarity and crispness. In short, it's a great visual presentation that'll take your breath away!
The audio is one of the most memorable parts of Schindler's List, due largely in part to the film's wonderful score. As such, we are treated to a number of audio options: an English DTS 5.1 track, and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks available in English, French, and Spanish. Undoutedly, this large number of choices must have taken up a considerable amount of space, and trimming one or more of these may have enabled the film to fit on one side of the disc. Even so, any of the audio choices is fantastic, although the Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS tracks are virtually identical (save for slightly stronger seperation and low end on the DTS track). Ambient noise and sound effects are very strong, and the score opens up perfectly on many occasions. Overall, the audio is subtle but excellent, and but one of the many highlights for this release.
Menu Design & Packaging:
For such a somber and reverent film, you'd have to expect a matching presentation, and that's exactly what you get here. From the elegant menu design to the unique packaging, this is quite a striking release. In detail, the menus are very simple, yet they convey the perfect mood and atmosphere to compliment the film: bold imagery combined with the film's wonderful score.
The packaging itself for this release is quite a mystery indeed: early reports mentioned a great number of packaging choices, including a 2-disc keepcase, a double-sided 1-disc digipak, and a deluxe edition. It seems that the most common version is the double-sided single disc release, in your choice of digipak or keepcase packaging (the former choice is what I recieved for review purposes, and will be referenced from here on).
This digpak version isn't of the usual cheap cardboard variety, and is actually quite nice. Resembling a hardcover book, the packaging is very sturdy and should hold up well over time. Inside the case is a brief insert booklet that includes a donation form for the 'Suvivors of the Shoah' Visual History Foundation (which presumably is included with all versions). Overall, this digipak presentation is excellent and one of the better examples of the format so far, and I'd highly recommend it. Although I normally hate double-sided discs (which are more prone to damage), such a trivial complaint can be overlooked in this case. Regardless of your choice of packaging, this is an excellent presentation and a real highlight of this release. One last note: the 'deluxe edition' mentioned earlier contains a number of other 'extras', but is much more expensive (and reportedly, the outer case is highly prone to breakage). Unless you're a huge fan of the film, I'd recommend sticking with this version.
Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of this release, the extras for Schindler's List are few, but are still of high quality. Just for the record, this is a 'flipper', meaning the movie is divided onto both sides of the disc (the break occurs just after the 130-minute mark). The extras, along with the remaining hour of the film, are all located on the second side.
The major supplement is an 80-minute documentary located on Side B entitled Voices from the Past. This is a well-produced documentary that is taken completely from a historical perspective, and includes many interviews and accounts of what happened to the Schindler Jews. Also included is the brief featurette The Shoah Foundation Story, which is less of an actual bonus feature, and more of an advertisment for a worthwhile cause. Last but not least, we are given a selection of Filmographies for the cast and crew.
While these extras are in tone with the movie, it would have been nice to see some things related to the filmmaking process. I know Spielberg isn't a great supporter of audio commentaries, but a few featurettes on the cinematography or even the score would have been welcome inclusions. If you're only concerned with the film itself, this is a great example of the format; however, most hardcore DVD enthusiasts are bound to be disappointed with the lack of extras here.
Although there are better films available that deal with the Holocaust, Schindler's List is a visually stunning and highly emotional film that does an excellent job getting its point across. The performances are strong, the imagery is beatiful, and that's more than enough reason to consider this film a successful endeavor. The DVD itself is also a decent effort, with an excellent technical presentation of the film and a solid packaging job. While I would have preferred more extras (especially from a technical perspective), it's hard to deny that the film stands well on its own. It's a great achievment from one of our generation's top visionaries, and, despite a few flaws, was still very worthy of its Oscar for Best Picture in 1993. With such a polished overall presentation, this is one of the better releases of 2004 and should really please fans of the film. Needless to say, Schindler's List comes Highly Recommended.
Other Links of Interest
'Suvivors of the Shoah' Visual History Foundation
Night and Fog - DVD Talk Review by Jason Janis
Night and Fog - DVD Talk Review by Glenn Erickson
Shoah - DVD Talk Review by Gil Jawetz
Randy Miller III is an art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.